Liner Notes-The Music of Harry Partch

by Walter Simmons



The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.

Harry Partch

The twentieth century has produced many composers who fashioned themselves iconoclasts or radicals, only to find themselves in an institutionalized avant-garde where they bask in the prestige of their professorial rank. Few have taken a route as isolated as Harry Partch, who renounced not only the conventional styles of Western music, but also its instruments, its tuning system, and its fundamental aesthetic assumptions. Partch acted from the deep convic­tion that there is an important alternative to the basic premises and definitions upon which Western art music is predicated.

The key feature of traditional music against which Partch reacted is what he termed “Abstractionism,” or the per­ception of music as a pure, autonomous structure. This is the fundamental principle underlying the German classi­cal tradition, epitomized by the music of Bach and, to some extent, implicit in most of “classical” music. In contrast, Partch proposed the principle of “Corporealism,” a term by which he signified a kind of expressive chanting based on speech inflections, which unites the singer and the words into an organic whole. His ideal was “a manner of impres­sing the intangible beauty of tone into the vital power of the spoken word, without impairing either.” Partch found precedents for this ideal in ancient Greek drama, early Florentine opera, and much of the world’s folk music. But he felt that the Western art music- tradition, under the influence of Christianity, had suppressed this organic “Corporeal” ideal by isolating the abstract or “spiritual” qualities of music from the human beings who created it.

As Partch sought to develop an appropriate musical language through which to realize his ideal, he was forced to con­front the inadequacy of equal temperament—the piano scale, which consists of twelve equidistant pitches. In order to achieve the subtle inflections required for the type of music he envisioned, a means of producing minute divisions of pitch, called microtones, was necessary. Since most con­ventional instruments are incapable of producing these subtle pitch distinctions, Partch began to design and build instruments himself.

“I am not an instrument builder, but a philosophic music man seduced into carpentry.”

Over a period of forty years, Harry Partch created approxi­mately thirty different instruments, mostly stringed or per­cussion instruments, designed according to a tuning system of forty-three tones to the octave. Not only do these instru­ments, built from an extraordinary array of materials, create a wealth of captivating sonorities, but they are constructed to evoke a visual response as well, further illustrat­ing the organic notion of Corporeality.

For obvious reasons, the opportunity of hearing a performance of Harry Partch’s music was rare indeed. Not only did musicians have to undergo long and arduous apprentice­ships in order to learn how to play his instruments, but the size and delicacy of the instruments made them all but untransportable. Consequently, Partch’s reputation grew very slowly. Yet, during the last years of his life, he began to receive the recognition he had been denied so long, and today he is recognized as one of the most profound and far-reaching musical visionaries of our time. The noted critic Jacques Barzun has stated that Partch’s work represents “the most original and powerful contribution to dramatic music on this continent.”

Despite the small number of performances of Partch’s music that have taken place, posterity is fortunate that Partch recorded much of his own music and that several excellent films have been made about the man himself and as documents of some of these performances. Another invaluable source of information concerning the composer and his music is Partch’s own book, Genesis of a Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), which contains one of the most lucid, challenging, and articulate aesthetic mani­festoes ever penned by a composer. Also included are exhaustive explanations of the acoustical rationales upon which Partch’s concepts of intonation are based.

In 1973, the film The Dreamer That Remains: A Portrait of Harry Partch was produced by Whitelight-Tantalus Productions, under the direction of Stephen Pouliot. Part One of this sound filmstrip set presents an abridged adapta­tion of this film.

Film-maker Madeline Tourtelot produced six films dealing with Harry Partch and his music. They are: Windsong, Music Studio—Harry Partch, Rotate the Body, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, U.S. Highball, and Delusion of the Fury. Part Two offers excerpts from three of these films.
As a result of Partch’s experience as a hobo during the 1930s, the culture of hobo life became a significant source of inspiration for much of his work. U.S. Highball, written in 1943, is a hobo’s account of a trip from San Francisco to Chicago, presented in an almost surrealistic style. Part Two includes a brief excerpt of Madeline Tourtelot’s film version of this composition.

Perhaps the work that represents the culmination of Partch’s creative activity is the drama entitled Delusion of the Fury, completed in 1966. It is in two acts, and features dance, mime, and the dramatic participation of the musicians, who are costumed. The first act is based on an ancient Japanese story. The second act, based on an African tale, concerns a young vagabond, about to build a fire and cook a meal. An old woman enters, looking for her lost goat. She soon finds the goat, but becomes involved in a quarrel with the vagabond. Villagers congregate about, and the couple is finally brought before the Justice of the Peace. The filmstrip presents the scene called “Arrest, Trial, and Judgment.” After listening to the case, the Justice, who is deaf and nearsighted, utters these words: “Young man, take your beautiful young wife and your charming child and go home!” The members of the chorus then sing their song, “0 How Did We Ever Get By Without Justice?”